Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 04, 2007
BOCA RATON — At a critical moment in his first college game, Florida Atlantic cornerback Tavious Polo picked off a pass in the end zone and then celebrated like it was the first interception of his life.
That's because it was.
Polo, who leads the NCAA in interceptions with seven after playing just five games, didn't have one interception in high school at South Plantation.
"They just didn't throw the ball to my side," said Polo, who added that he gave up only one pass completion as a senior.
Polo, who also played receiver and returned punts in high school, said he always has had a knack for the ball.
"Anytime the ball is in the air, I feel like it's my ball," he said. "I just go up here and get it."
Even though FAU (3-2) is not even halfway through its schedule, Polo \has eclipsed the Owls' record of six interceptions in a season. The first one helped assure FAU's 27-14 victory over Middle Tennessee State in the opener.
Four games later, Polo is on pace to break the NCAA single-season record of 14 interceptions by Washington's Al Worley in 1968. Polo also could break the freshman record of 13 interceptions by George Shaw of Oregon in 1951.
Polo is making his interceptions count.
His first kept Middle Tennessee from cutting FAU's margin to a touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
In a 42-39 upset of Minnesota, he had three interceptions, the last with nine seconds left and the Gophers' at the Owls 29-yard line.
On Saturday, his latest interception snapped an NCAA-record streak of 325 passes without an interception by Kentucky's Andre' Woodson.
"They are all important, I think," said Polo, who also was victimized for two touchdowns in Kentucky's 45-17 victory. "They are more important to the team than me because that gives the offense the ball."
That attitude helped make him a favorite of his high school coach, Jack Chapman.
"He is a playmaker, and wherever he plays he is going to make an impact," Chapman said. "He's on the field to compete and he would do anything that would help him succeed. He was a model player - a coach's dream."
Polo was recruited by some larger schools, but they shied away because of academic concerns and his preference to stay close to his grandmother, Elease Finley, who raised him since he was 2.
"She helped me become a man," Polo said. "She was always there by my side."
He was raised in Fort Lauderdale's Melrose Park neighborhood, a once-prosperous area that has declined in recent years. Polo said some of his friends got in trouble with the law, but his grandmother kept him in line.
"He was always a good kid and always felt like he needed to prove himself," Finley said. "I always told him if he wanted to play ball in college he needed to put his thinking cap on and make up his mind to what he wanted to do."
Even after signing with FAU, he feared he might not qualify academically. When he passed his last test to meet the academic standards, he cried.
"It was close, but I made it," Polo said. "FAU stuck on me from Day One. They always believed in me."
At 5-feet-10 and 166 pounds, Polo is small but plays big.
"If he were a fish, you wouldn't put him on a string, you'd throw him back, he's so small," coach Howard Schnellenberger said. "But he has great talent. He runs right up and smacks into receivers like he weighs 210 pounds."
Polo was a redshirt last season, playing on the scout team. This summer, he took over the spot vacated by Rickey Bethel, a senior last season. Polo is playing opposite junior Corey Small, who began the season as the Owls primary cornerback.
It didn't take long to see that the Owls have two quality cornerbacks.
"He's got great ball skills and is athletic," Small said. "They keep throwing his way and he keeps picking it off. We knew what he was capable of, but seven picks? That's unheard of."